Three teenage boys slurp Cokes and chocolate milkshakes in a red vinyl booth in the Hollywood Diner, hard by Baltimore's Jones Falls Expressway and some of its dingiest streets. They're talking about girls and cars, music and an impending double date. Does Sylvia "put out"? How about her friend?
After some more adolescent banter, Sylvia's date--the angelic, green-eyed Ben Foster--produces a quarter from his pocket and tosses it. The coin will decide which of his two friends (played by Evan Neumann and Gerry Rosenthal) will be the fourth at a James Brown concert--the adventure's sexual anticipation made even more tantalizing by the prospect of crossing the color line.
Foster slaps the coin down on the tabletop with the thwack of a fate sealed.
"Good. Let's keep it going."
It should come as no surprise that the man orchestrating this particular vignette--and chuckling avuncularly the entire time--is Barry Levinson. And it should be even less surprising that the Toscanini of adolescent male sexual angst is presiding over yet another symphony of testosterone, anxiety and bonding in the very diner that started his career as a film director.
Hunkered down with 30-odd cast and crew members on a chill November afternoon, Levinson has returned once again to the place in Baltimore with which he is most identified. The Hollywood Diner played the title character in the first movie Levinson directed, "Diner" (1982). Called the Fells Point Diner back then, it returned to the screen for a cameo in "Tin Men" (1987), where it again served as a male redoubt against the incursions of time, women and other abominations.
And here it is again, this kitschy, chrome-plated phallic symbol, the perfect architectural trope for the Baltimore men whose tribal rituals Levinson has built so much of his career documenting. (The Hollywood will be re-christened and moved back to the Baltimore waterfront neighborhood of Fells Point digitally.)
The fourth installment of Levinson's Baltimore cycle, "Liberty Heights," will open Friday nationwide. The modestly budgeted Warner Bros. movie is redolent of Levinsonian romanticism--hair tonic, the perfume of an unattainable shiksa princess, the interior of a brand-new Cadillac. But more, it is a tale of how race, religion, class and the territoriality that is unique to Baltimore came together in the 1950s in a clash that, at least in Levinson's retelling, resulted in shared understanding as often as violence.
Probably the most surprising thing about "Liberty Heights" isn't that Levinson is tackling such charged subject matter, but that the idea for the movie emerged from the murky depths of Levinson's tepid science-fiction thriller "Sphere." It was last February, when Levinson read a review of "Sphere" in Entertainment Weekly, that he started fuming--and pacing.
The film, which starred Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, was almost universally maligned. But it wasn't a poor review that brought Levinson to his feet. It was a passage in which the critic described Hoffman's character as "Norman, the empathetic Jewish psychologist," adding insult to indignity with terms like "noodge" and "menschlike."
Levinson was enraged, and he becomes furious again recalling the moment.
"The movie has nothing to do with religion!" he says between sips of pea soup during a lunch break. "You know, whatever you think of the movie is whatever you want to think of it. But why would that be [mentioned]--I mean, you wouldn't say that Mel Gibson [in "Ransom"] is a Catholic businessman whose son is kidnapped."
For three days, Levinson paced around his Marin County, Calif., home, "driving my wife crazy," he says. "Then all of a sudden, it snapped." Levinson did what he always does when an idea "snaps": He took a note pad and a pen in hand, ensconced himself in a room, switched the satellite music system to the sounds of the 1950s and wrote. And wrote.
Three weeks later, he emerged with the script for "Liberty Heights," the story of Ben Kurtzman (Foster), a 17-year-old Jewish boy growing up in the northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Forest Park. The year is 1954, when black and white students first begin attending school together. In one subplot, Ben makes tentative romantic advances to an African American classmate named Sylvia.
Ben's father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), is a devoted family man who owns a strip club in Baltimore's red-light district, known as the Block. Nate is also a small-time numbers runner dealing with police crackdowns and the advent of state-sponsored lotteries. Ben's older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), a sensitive student at the University of Baltimore, is in hot pursuit of a gorgeous girl who happens to reside in one of Baltimore's most patrician WASP precincts.
Throughout "Liberty Heights," the dynamics of race form and re-form in a complex matrix. Exclusion turns into an opportunity for political solidarity; segregation has the oddly beneficent consequence of cultural preservation. Levinson was determined, while writing "Liberty Heights," to represent the complexities surrounding ethnicity in the Baltimore of his youth.
Levinson, who at 56 radiates good health (the chocolate cookies he nibbles after lunch are low-fat), his gray hair grazing his collar, is a storyteller par excellence, regaling his cast and crew with anecdotes and trenchant observations throughout the day. Many of the set-pieces of his movies have been inspired by real-life stories, and "Liberty Heights" is no exception. The director really did have a cousin who, like Ben, dressed as Hitler one Halloween and was surprised at his parents' outraged reaction; like Ben, Levinson "really thought the bread was raw" when he was served a sandwich on untoasted bread at a Gentile friend's home.
The character of Nate is based on real-life friends of Levinson's father, who ran an appliance warehouse store. Like Nate, Levinson's father used to sneak out of synagogue on Rosh Hashana to ogle the Cadillac dealership's new models. Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) is the personification of several Baltimore legends, black men who, while conducting less-than-legal business, became respected leaders in their communities.
And, like Ben Kurtzman, Levinson grew up thinking that the entire world was Jewish, an outlook born of living in one of Baltimore's famously insular ethnic enclaves. "The Polish, the Italian, the Jewish, they were all very isolated from one another," he recalls. "And everybody stayed in their own area. If you wandered into another area, you were already a stranger."
So the odd fight or violent outburst, he says, "wasn't necessarily out of [anti-Semitism], although sometimes it would come up. But I don't think in the sense of really hating Jews as much as, 'Wait a minute. You're here and you don't belong here, you belong there.'
"Everybody belonged in their own place. The idea of crossing Falls Road, to a Jewish person, was a big deal. It was like, 'Oh, wait a minute. You're going to Canada.' "
In "Diner," and Levinson's other autobiographical Baltimore films, many of the characters are Jewish--think of the classic wedding scene that ends "Diner"--but religion is only tangential to the plot. In "Liberty Heights," religion and ethnicity are central to the movie's theme.
Ask Levinson whether he has identified strongly as a Jewish person throughout his life, and the man of a thousand stories, who honed his timing doing stand-up, writing for "The Carol Burnett Show" and collaborating with Mel Brooks, seems to be at a loss for words.
"I identified less in terms of its religious aspects as opposed to the people and the culture," he says finally. "We were not particularly religious, although we did go to an Orthodox synagogue. But we didn't keep kosher in the house."
Inevitably, the Levinson timing kicks in. "Like, my grandmother wouldn't eat steamed crabs, but she would eat crab cakes."
The more complex content of "Liberty Heights," in which dramatic confrontations fluidly intersect with tenderly funny moments, called for a commensurate visual approach. Levinson, who has directed 14 movies, among them the Oscar-winning "Rain Man" as well as hits like "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Bugsy" and "Wag the Dog," has never been known for a distinct visual signature. But with "Liberty Heights" he wanted to explore new visual territory, "to express certain things . . . without being head-on to them," he explains.
For a scene of a police raid on Nate's burlesque house, for example, Levinson photographed police cars in reflection rather than straight-on. "It's all done in complete abstract fashion," he says. "It's all done through the reflections of the clubs on the street. . . . Even the strippers in the burlesque [are] no longer just straight-ahead, the way they were [in "Diner"]. They're treated differently, sometimes with changes in speed, sometimes by shooting in a slightly different fashion from the stage, rather than towards the stage. So it becomes slightly more odd, in a way."
The man most responsible for giving Levinson the new look he requires is Chris Doyle, until now best known for his spontaneous, neon-infused photographic style on such films as "Chungking Express," "Happy Together" and "Fallen Angels," all filmed in Hong Kong. The two met while Doyle was filming Gus Van Sant's reprise of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Psycho." (Another counterintuitive hire was John Waters' production designer, Vincent Peranio.)
Doyle sees the aesthetic and thematic departures Levinson is taking as nothing short of a renegotiation of the filmmaker's relationship with his hometown, a place at once his muse and potential rut, his benefactor and beneficiary.
"Barry is such an institution in Baltimore. He's the Johns Hopkins of filmmaking," Doyle says. "And that must be a wonderful thing to carry with you, but it's also a stone around your neck. How do you move on? One way you can energize a place is with new ideas, and I think he's also trying to give Baltimoreans a different view of themselves."
For his part, Levinson sees any suggestion of a new "look" simply as an effect of his growth as a director. "You know, it's been nine years since the last [Baltimore movie, "Avalon"]," he explains a bit impatiently. "As you continue to evolve, there are different visual things that enter into the picture. Each [film] speaks its own visual language. I think this one will differ more than any of them, which is what I wanted to go for."
Still, Doyle insists there's more at work. "I think he's changed a lot over the past month," he says of Levinson. "I think he's opened up, and I think this movie is a big turning point for him."
Another day, another diner scene. Now it's Brody, late of Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" and Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam," doing his time at the Hollywood. In this scene, his character, Van, is mooning about a girl he just met at a party. As he swoons, his friend Yussel (David Krumholtz) is nursing a black eye and a grudge. Back at the party, he had gotten into a fight when someone asked if he was Jewish.
"When's the last time you wanted to know if someone was Catholic?" Yussel asks excitedly. "Or Episcopalian, Methodist, Protestant? Who gives a [expletive]?"
"What's the difference between all those groups? They all pray to Christ," says a third character, Alan (Kevin Sussman).
"It's OK to have a Jew on the wall, just don't have one come through the door," says Yussel.
"A dead Jew is OK," says Alan. "I think that's the operative word here."
If "Liberty Heights" has a thesis scene, a central piece of dialogue, this is it.
The exchange "is directly from [reading] that review," Levinson says during a break in filming. "This is the thing in 'Liberty Heights' that probably hits specifically to that line about Hoffman being Jewish. I remember that's what I was saying to my wife--like, you know, when's the last time you wanted to know if someone was Protestant?"
"Liberty Heights" is too full of Levinson's gentle wit and romantic yearning to qualify as that radical a departure. But seen alongside the earlier Baltimore films, it is admittedly more densely layered, in its look and its meanings. Only hindsight can identify a turning point, but as Levinson settles in for one more take, he seems poised to look at his most enduring themes through a slightly wider lens.